Newport News, Virginia – December 24, 1944
“Our debt to the heroic men and valiant women in the service of our country can never be repaid. They have earned our undying gratitude. America will never forget their sacrifices.”
Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972)
Macie Vance sat on the flight deck of the soon-to-be USS Crown Point (CV-32) with her back against the unfinished center-island superstructure. Nora Lee was beside her as they ate their lunch in silence. It was a rather warm day for December, temperature in the high fifties, and they took advantage of the soft onshore breeze to breathe in some clean, salty sea-air. It was a refreshing contrast to the pungent smell of the welding torches in the confined spaces below decks.
Macie was wearing her customary coveralls and knotted red bandana. Her welding helmet was at her side. She flipped open the lid of her lunch pail and pulled out the other half of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich and continued to eat in silence. It was Sunday and Christmas Eve. The “yard” would be closing early. It would also be closed on Christmas Day for the first time in four years.
CV-32 was the only Essex-class aircraft carrier hull still under construction in the Newport News Shipyard. At its peak in late 1943, the yard had five of the magnificent aircraft carriers under the welders’ torches at the same time. They all had been completed, launched and commissioned. Only the USS Boxer (CV-21), which had been launched on 14 December and was out for sea trials, had not yet been commissioned. That would take a few more months. Macie and her crew came over from working on the Boxer to the Crown Point.
As the orders for carriers dried up, workers were furloughed. The frenetic pace of construction in 1942 and 1943 had slowed to a more methodical tempo. It was clear America would eventually win the War. There was no longer a desperate need to build any more of these majestic behemoths.
The change in attitude came about slowly but steadily as the year 1944 unfolded. If 1942 was a year of survival and 1943 a year of stabilization, then 1944 was the turning point toward victory. The initiative was completely in Allied hands and the Axis Powers were forced into a reactive and defensive mode. Not that the battles were easy. But each fatality marked the road to the ultimate triumph and pointed to the end of this grueling War.
Macie kept up on world affairs but the change from struggle to imminent victory was so subtle she nearly missed it. The year began with small, hopeful signs the Allies were gaining control. On the Eastern Front, the Russians were continuing their push westward. They broke the siege of Leningrad in the north in January and recaptured the port of Sevastopol in the south in April. In the center, Russian armored forces pushed back Germany’s Army Group Center and recaptured the Ukraine. The Germans were hard pressed everywhere to defend a 1,400-mile front. By the end of 1944, the Russian armies were sitting on the Vistula River across from Poland. They were re-supplying and consolidating forces for the final push to Berlin.
In Italy, the Allies were busy as well. The amphibious landings at Anzio in January signaled the Allied effort to break the stalemate. The Germans resisted stubbornly across the mountainous boot but the Allies eventually pushed them back and captured Rome in June.
The invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944 was a momentous event that augured the return of the Allies to confront the Germans on French soil. Breaching the Atlantic Wall was arduous but with the breakout in July and the liberation of Paris in August, the Allies had the Germans in retreat and on the run. The surprise Nazi counteroffensive in December, which resulted in the Battle of the Bulge, was a huge setback for the Allies. But they recovered rather quickly. By the end of 1944, they too were approaching a river barrier, the Rhine, preparing for the final assault on the Third Reich.
In the Central Pacific, United States Marines recaptured most of the Marshall Islands in February against fanatical resistance. The next targets were the islands of Tinian and Saipan in the Marianas. The Americans attacked the islands in June, triggering one of the most one-sided battles in history. The Battle of the Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, pitted what was left of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s carrier fleet against the American Fast Carrier Task Groups. There had not been a major carrier battle of this scope for two years in the Pacific. Since the Battle of Midway, both sides were husbanding their resources and gathering strength. But the Japanese were not about to let this incursion by the Americans go unchallenged.
The Imperial Japanese Navy brought all of their might to bear on the Americans; five heavy and four light aircraft carriers plus land based planes from nearby islands. Their forces also included five battleships. The Japanese force had a strength of 673 planes, 473 carrier based and the rest land-based. The Americans brought fifteen fast carriers into the battle with new F6F Hellcat fighters on their decks. The Battle of the Philippine Sea was virtually all air combat. When it was over, more than 600 Japanese planes were downed. In addition, three of their aircraft carriers were sunk or damaged. The Americans lost twenty-three planes in air combat and another hundred ditching in the dark sea when they ran out of fuel returning from attacking the Imperial Japanese carriers.
It was a source of great pride to Macie and her co-workers at Newport News Shipyard that the Japanese fleet was decimated with weapons forged and built with their own hands.
In October, the Americans invaded the Japanese-held Philippines and began the methodical process of evicting them from the islands. MacArthur had vowed to return two years prior when he was ordered to leave his troops and withdraw to Australia.
As the Americans closed the ring around Japan, their warships hunted Japanese shipping relentlessly. American submarines and aircraft carriers now roamed the seas with impunity. They regularly interdicted traffic between the Japanese Home Islands and their recently captured possessions. The Americans had Japan in a chokehold and continued to rack up big scores of shipping tonnage through all of 1944.
As the year came to a close, the news from all fronts was extremely encouraging. However, finishing the War would not be easy. The final conquests of Germany and especially Japan would be hard-fought and costly. The question was whether victory was near at hand or would the obstinate Japanese hold out for years?
Nora Lee brushed her recently cut short blond hair back under her baseball cap. She pulled the cap tight to her head against the breeze. “What are your plans after the War, Sweetie?”
Macie pulled her knees up to her chest and finished chewing. “I really haven’t thought about it, Nora. I probably should with so many yard workers being let go.”
“Well, I don’t think they’re going to let us do this.” She waved her hand across the deck. “I certainly won’t be able to find a job as a drill press operator. It’s all over for us.”
“Women, Macie. When this War is over they’ll be shoving us back to be housewives.”
Macie considered that for a moment. “The guys coming home are going to need the jobs, Nora. And I was thinking about raising a family anyway.”
Macie looked directly at Nora and didn’t answer.
“Buyer’s remorse?” Nora pressed. Still, Macie wouldn’t answer. She had been conflicted ever since she wrote Jake the Dear John letter. It was an issue she was still sorting out and she knew where Nora stood on the matter. Nora had lived the pain of losing men to the insatiable grinding gears of the War and wanted to spare Macie the same fate. Nora loved her as a sister and withheld judgment, just as Macie had with Nora’s occasional impulsive, salacious behavior.
“Anyway, Sweetie, we shouldn’t be forced out of our jobs now and we should be allowed to do what we want after the War. We should have choices. We earned the right to make the choice of family or career. It’s not fair that we get pushed around.”
“Nobody is pushing us around Nora. We still have jobs.”
“Thanks to Derek, probably. Who do you think is being let go?” Macie didn’t answer. “Mostly dames and the niggers! The big shots are already putting us back in our place!”
“I wish you wouldn’t call them that.”
“What? Dames or big shots?” Nora chortled at her own little joke.
“You know what I mean. Besides, Nora, do you really want to be a drill press operator for the rest of your life?”
“That’s not the point, Macie. I want the choice. I earned the right to have a choice. So did you!” She motioned to a group of women having lunch a short distance away. “So did all of us. I like the financial independence. I like being part of a team. I love accomplishing things and the respect that goes with that. We helped build, what, eight big ships in two years? Didn’t you feel proud that you personally accomplished something when those ships were launched?”
Macie nodded. Nora continued. “Besides, I’ve already proven I could learn a skill and be good at it. That should count for something after the War.”
“You don’t know what it’s going to be like after the War. I’m worried about the layoffs, too. I left Derek a message…”
“Speak of the devil,” Nora eyed Derek as he came through a doorway in the superstructure.
He approached the two girls looking somber. “They told me I could find you two up here.” He looked at Macie. “You left me a message?”
“That was Friday, Derek.” Macie’s face-hardened, her voice firm.
“Sorry. Been a little busy lately.”
“Laying off people?” Nora asked with obvious sarcasm.
Derek stepped back. “Is that what this is about? Look ladies, I’m not making these decisions. I’m not that high up on the food chain to decide who stays and who goes. I just do what I’m told.”
“Why are we still here?” Macie asked. “Are you pulling strings for us?”
“I can only make recommendations. You both have seniority so keeping you on isn’t so hard.”
“What about the colored and the other women? Why are so many being let go?” Macie still had an edge in her voice.
“Same reason. Seniority. Last in, first out.”
Both girls gave Derek a skeptical look.
“Look around, ladies. There’s only one carrier under construction. It’s obvious we don’t need as many people as when we had five in the works. We had to let them go.”
“Will they find jobs, Derek?” Macie’s tone softened a bit.
“I called around. There are only seven carrier hulls under construction in the five shipyards in the country that can build them. No new hulls have been laid down since August and none are planned. I guess the navy only needed the twenty-four they ordered.”
“So all those people are out of jobs?” Nora asked.
“Some factories in the North are still hiring. They may have to relocate. That shouldn’t be a problem. Most of them moved here to get this job, like you two. I think they’ll find work.”
Nora scoffed. “I just think they’re trying to shove us women back into the lives we had before the War.”
Derek looked directly at Nora. “They may try, Nora, but nothing will be the same when the War ends. Society will be turned upside down. Everything will change. You’ll see.”
“I hope you’re right, Derek. Women deserve better,” Macie offered. She noticed some papers in Derek’s hand. “What do you have there?”
Derek frowned. “It’s not good news.” He handed Macie the letter from Roxie dated 19 December. She began to read it softly out loud while Nora read over her shoulder. They read for a few moments and the letter came to an abrupt end. Derek fought back tears as he handed them another letter.
December 21, 1944
You don’t know me but I’m a close friend of Roxie Rawls. She left the attached letter on her writing tablet when she had to leave to ferry a plane. She never finished the letter because she never came back. I’m sorry to have to inform you that her plane went down in a storm and she along with her co-pilot are missing and presumed lost.
I know you were close friends. She spoke of you often and was very fond of you. I thought the least I could do was forward her last letter to you and advise you of her fate. We here in the WASPs will miss her terribly. She was a loyal and caring friend and a great pilot. I’m so sorry!
With deepest sympathy and regret,